Sri Lanka’s west coast covers the coastal belt just south of Colombo all the way down to Hikkaduwa. From that point on, Red Dot prefers to refer to the Galle coast, which is increasingly influenced by the famous old fortress town. The west coast is more frequented by holidaymakers due to its closer proximity to the island’s capital and the main airport, and offers tropical beaches and mangrove-lined lagoons The sandy beaches are the main attraction in the string of small towns such as Kalutara, Beruwela, Bentota, Ambalangoda, Ahungalla and Hikkaduwa, but they also share a vibrant cultural heritage including folklore, music and dance as well as architectural influences from the Dutch period. Many temples, kovils, churches and mosques are situated along the coast. Cottage industries such as basket-weaving, mask-carving and antique restoration provide for interesting shopping.
• Great sunbathing at excellent-value tropical hotels
• Water skiing in Bentota
• Dancing the night away in Hikkaduwa
• Surfing and deep sea fishing
• Stroll through Bevis Bawa’s Brief gardens
• Kosgoda’s marine turtles
• Traditional mask dancing in Ambalangoda
• Elephant Foot Drummers of Hikkaduwa
• Boat ride down mangrove-filled rivers
• Ancient temples & churches.
Little more than an hour south of central Colombo, as you cross the Kalu Ganga Bridge, Sri Lanka’s West Coast really begins. From this point on all the way to Galle, the tiny main coastal road, known as the Galle Road, hugs the picturesque coast line and runs parallel to the rickety old railway which limps all the way to Matara. The trains stop at all the main town including Kalutara, Aluthgama, Hikkdaduwa and Galle, but the hill-country line is far more recommended. From Panadura, just before the west coast begins, you can most easily also head to Ratnapura, Sinharajah and the Southern Highlands.
Useful drive times include:
Colombo to Bentota (2 hours); Airport to Bentota (3 hours); Bentota to Hikkaduwa (45 minutes); Bentota to Galle (1.5 hours); Kandy to Kalutara (4 hours); Nuwara Eliya to Galle (6 hours); Uda Walawe to Galle (3.5 hours).
The west coast’s traditional beach hotels first began to spring up in the 1960s, and have become a significant factor in the island’s economy. But about 1,000 years earlier another influence first arrived on Sri Lanka’s shores – the ubiquitous coconut tree which has countless uses as well as adorning thousands of holiday pictures. Kalutara, named after the Kalu Ganga (Black River) that winds through this town, was an important spice trading centre during Colonial times. First the Portuguese in the 17th century followed by the Dutch were enticed by the cinnamon estates in the area and built a network of canals that were used to transport these spices. During the 19th century, the British converted these spice estates into Rubber plantations which remain to date. A canoe ride along the old Dutch Canals will take you past rural villages and old houses that are reminiscent of the colonial period.
Wadduwa & Kalutara, the first beach settlements along the west coast coming from Colombo, have a reputation for fine mangosteens – a luscious small purple colour fruit found in abundance along wayside stalls in July/August. Explore Kalutara’s colonial past with a visit to the Richmond Castle, an old spice-plantation mansion which can be reached by canoe down the old Dutch canals. Take a cycling trip inland through spice, fruit and rubber plantations. These are available for serious mountain bikers as well as families just wanting a leisurely afternoon ride. The beaches widen at Beruwela, which has a golden strip of mile-long beach, largely favoured by mid-range beach hotels of traditional style. For an unusual outing here, consider the Brief Gardens – a 25-acre estate which was the lifelong work of the celebrated landscape artist Bevis Bawa. A day excursion to the central rainforests of Sinharaja is also possible.
Bentota is blessed by the lazy waters of the Bentota River, ideal for watersports and boat trips. Bentota’s broad sandy beach with gently-shelving sands offer safe swimming making it one of the most appealing Sri Lankan destinations for a traditional and relaxing family holiday. Continue your journey further south to Ambalangoda where the mask carvers and puppet makers predominate. The turtle hatchery at Kosgoda plays a vital protective role for the turtles that lay their eggs on the beach annually, and is well worth a visit. The characterful town of Hikkaduwa attracts the backpackers, independent travellers, and generally a younger crowd. Its range of budget accommodation, scattering of simple but decent restaurants, beach bars, and beachside nightclubs gives it something of the mood of a resort in Goa or Bali.
The choice is widespread and value for money largely excellent, but be wary of some special offers that you may see in the package-hotel sector, especially outside peak times. Special offers can either be a bargain or a hint that a hotel is faltering. Check our profiles, decide on your priorities and ask us for advice. We generally recommend the beaches of Bentota (especially the southern end), Induruwa, Kosgoda, Balapitiya and Ahungalle. Wadduwa and Kalutara have several appealing properties for those wanting to be closer to Colombo and the airport. Beruwala, in our view, have been scarred by the 1970’s development of large scale “package resort” hotels, although the Eden Hotel is a sound choice and can offer some splendid special offers.
There are several Geoffrey Bawa designed hotels along the west coast, including Heritance Ahungalla, Lighthouse Hotel in Galle, Blue Waters in Wadduwa, Bentota Beach Hotel and Lunuganga – Bawa’s country retreat and tranquil landscaped gardens – which is open to guests for just four months of the year from December to April. Families travelling with children might like Max Wadiya or Sri Villas in Induruwa; Amaya Reef – a mid-range hotel in Hikkaduwa; or several hotels close to Bentota’s watersports, such as the 5-star Taj Exotica, Bentota Beach Hotel or the simpler Serendib. Among the best budget options are Garden Beach Hotel and Cinnamon Gardens. For those seeking the benefits of Ayurvedic healing and wellness, we recommend the Siddhalepa Ayurveda Holiday Resort in Wadduwa. Lotus Villa in Ahungalla and Paradise Island Health Resort in Bentota takes in guests only for Ayurvedic treatments.
Food & Drink
Hikkaduwa offers most independent dining options, primarily simple beach restaurants, the best of which can offer excellent food – especially fish and curries — at great prices. For good rice and curries try Homegrown. Harbour, Refresh, and Spaghetti & Co also serve international cuisine. For something more casual right on the beach, try Top Secret. The jumbo prawns here are fabulous. The happening night clubs in Hikkaduwa include Vibrations generally on a Friday night and Mambo on Saturdays.
Cottage industries such as basket weaving, mask carving, and small shops selling Dutch antiques – furniture, lamps and ornaments, makes for interesting wayside shopping along the west coast especially in Hikkdaduwa and Bentota. The Sri Lankan Handicraft Centre in Bentota also sells traditional crafts. Hikkaduwa is best for bargains in beach, surfing and diving gear.
Elephant Foot Drummers from Hikkaduwa: This family group blends Sri Lanka’s traditional drum beats with a fusion of modern music. Elephant Foot performs at various night clubs in Hikkaduwa. The Elephant Foot Drum Shop located on Galle Road in Hikkaduwa sells traditional local drums as well as their music CDs. Odel and Barefoot bookshop in Colombo also carries their CDs.
The west coast is home to many architectural marvels designed by the late Geoffrey Bawa, Sri Lanka most influential architect who was responsible for linking the ancient architecture of this island with that of the modern world. Bawa also had a passion for the island’s varying natural landscapes, which he used as the focal points around which he created. The end result was a cherished architectural style that erased boundaries between the `outside’ and `inside’ of living and working spaces. Heritance Ahungalla, Lighthouse Hotel in Galle and Blue Waters in Wadduwa, designed by Bawa in the 1990s are good examples of his architectural style. Neptune and Bentota Beach Hotel are some of his earlier creations. To gain a better understanding of Bawa’s lifestyle and architecture, we recommend a visit to Lunuganga, Bawa’s country retreat and tranquil gardens, a lifelong project that he continued to develop for almost 50 years.
Richmond Castle, Kalutara
Built in the 19th century for a wealthy regional governor, Don Arthur de Silva, Richmond Castle was designed by a British architect in a blend of Indian and British architecture styles. The mansion is set in extensive landscaped gardens and has now been converted to a Montessori school for underprivileged children. Richmond Castle is located about two km inland near Palathota on the Tudugala road.
Set on the edge of Lake Dedduwa, Lunuganga is a Renaissance-inspired tropical garden and plantation house, which was the former country residence of Geoffrey Bawa. Lunuganga offers guests a rare opportunity to step inside the private life of the man dubbed “the father of Asian architecture.” The Lunuganga gardens have numerous plants, pavilions, and statues. Its exquisite bedrooms and suites are offered to guest for just four months of the year from December to April. For the rest of the year it is handed back to the Bawa Trust and is used as an artist’s retreat.
Brief Gardens, 10 kms inland from Bentota beach, is the rural retreat of Bevis Bawa, the older brother of architect Geoffrey Bawa. These extensive gardens are both beautiful and steeped in history. Well worth a visit.
Traditional masks in Ambalangoda
The traditional masks are very much a part of Sri Lanka’s culture and folklore. Kolam masks are used for dramatic purposes to enact traditional folktales and history; Thovil masks are used for exorcism rituals especially to eradicate disease. Each mask has a specific purpose. Mask crafting is an intricate skill that is passed down in generations.
Traditional Ruhunu dance
Traditional dance forms in Sri Lanka date back to the 4th century B.C. and are associated with rituals and ceremonies performed to expel sickness and misfortune and to evoke blessings. Several classical dance forms evolved in different regions. Presently, three main dance forms are performed: Kandyan (upcountry – Kandyan), Sabaragamuwa (central province), and Ruhunu (low country – southern). Each of these styles differs in dress, rhythm of the drums, dance movements, and songs, which are based on folklore relevant to the particular region. Masked dancers depicting numerous forms of birds, reptiles and demons dance to the rhythms of drums. Chanting, miming and dialogue may enact traditional folklore.
Traditional dance performances
Bandu Wijesuria’s Dance School located in Ambalangoda next door to the Ariyapala Mask Meuseum arranges for traditional Kandyan and southern dance performances.
Ariyapala Mask Museum
This museum in Ambalangoda exhibits traditional Kolam and Thovil masks some of which are rare and date back centuries.
Gangatilaka Vihara in Kalutara
Located just past the bridge in Kalutara, this Buddhist temple built in the 1960s is easily accessed as it is situated just by the roadside. The gigantic white Dagoba is believed to contain sacred relics of the Buddha. Murals depict the life story of Buddha.
Galapatha Temple in Aluthgama
This ancient temple houses temple paintings, sculptures, and an impressive reclining Buddha statue. The temple lies about five kms from Beruwela.
Situated in Karandeniya, about five km inland in Ambalangoda. Houses a 50m-long reclining Buddha considered to be the longest in Sri Lanka.
Water sports in Bentota
Take a short boat trip offshore to dive over the coral reefs, grab a snorkel and mask to paddle your way through tropical fish, or take advantage of the lively breezes on the west coast from December to March to windsurf. If speed is more your thing then there are jetski and waterski companies on the lagoon.
Canoe trip on the Kalu Ganga
The Kalu Ganga begins its journey to the sea on the western slopes of Adams Peak, Sri Lanka’s holy mountain. The divine waters flow slowly west, its banks lined with jungle, rubber plantations and communities using the river in their daily lives. Exploring the backwaters by canoe – a haven for birdlife, with both Black and Cinnamon Bitterns often seen scrambling for cover as you paddle through the mangroves — is magical.
Deep sea fishing
Sri Lanka’s seas hold a relative abundance of game fish. Species of Marlin, Sail Fish, Wahoo, Spanish mackerel, Giant Trevallie, Benito, Queen Fish (the world record is held in Sri Lanka), Barracuda, Grouper, Cobia and Tuna make this tropical paradise superb deep sea fishing territory. Deep sea angling is the most popular form of recreational and sport fishing in Sri Lanka. There are a wide variety of locations off the west coast resorts.
Surfing in Hikkaduwa
The best surfing spots in Hikkaduwa are in Wewala. Narigama is good for body surfing. Surf boards, gear, and even clothing can be sourced from Hikkaduwa.
Siddhalepa Health Resort
The Siddhalepa Health Resort has an Ayurveda tradition that dates back 200 years. Daily Yoga and weekly Meditation classes are held as a complement to the preventive and curative Ayurveda treatments on offer.
Paradise Island Health Resort
Situated on a the spit between the river and the sea in the west coast town of Bentota, Paradise Island is a peaceful setting where the ancient healing wisdom of Ayurveda is practiced to create holistic wellness. Medicinal herbs are sourced from near by villages and the oils, medicines, tonics and pastes are all prepared in-house for each guest based on individual requirements. Complementary activities such as Yoga, meditation, and acupuncture are also conducted on a regular basis. The Paradise Island Health Resort is strictly for Ayurveda clients only.
Spa Pavillions at Blue Waters
Blue Water is conveniently situated close to Colombo on the West coast. Its main theme is the ambitious use of water, which gives the hotel its name. The Spa Pavilions at Blue Waters takes a holistic approach to physical and spiritual well being.
The semi-precious gemstone known as `moonstone’ which has a milky bluish glow similar to that of the moon, is found only in the village of Meetiyagoda. It is said that the moonstone enhances the good fortune of the wearer and is also the birth stone for the month of June. Moonstones are especially popular with younger people as it is mainly set into silver jewellery. Located inland from Ambalangoda, the tiny Meetiyagoda moonstone mine is spread over roughly an acre. The stones are still mined using traditional methods with the mine shaft going down as deep as 50 feet. Cutting and polishing of the gemstone can be observed here. Jewellery is also available for purchase.
The Coconut Palm
Considered to be a life nurturing tree, the coconut palm is often presented as a precious gift. Every part of this precious tree is used in daily life. The leaves (gokkala) are woven into decorations at weddings or other ceremonies; the golden king coconut fruit (thambili) is known to have medicinal value; the coconut milk and oil is a basic ingredient in the local rice and curries; the coconut shell is turned into ornate cooking utensils including serving spoons; the outer husk of the coconut is soaked and processed into coir out of which hand spun rope, doormats and brushes are produced; and finally the bark of the tree is used to build outrigger canoes and fishing boats, and is also used in construction of houses and furniture.
Personal Yoga instruction
A growing number of guesthouses, hotels and retreats offer Yoga. However, some of our clients prefer private tuition and Red Dot is happy to organize this subject to availability of teachers. The easiest area to do this is around Galle but private yoga teachers can also be employed in Bentota and Tangalle. Red Dot does not charge for this service and you would need to pay your Yoga teacher direct.
Dodanduwa’s island bird life
Situated off Hikkaduwa, this serene island hermitage, rich in birdlife, can be visited only with prior permission.
Marine Turtle Conservation in Kosgoda
Globally, all seven species of marine turtles are endangered. Of these seven, five come ashore to nest in Sri Lanka. The process of marine turtles nesting, hatchlings being born, and swimming back to sea is fascinating to observe. The Kosgoda Conservation Project is an ideal way to learn and observe this endangered species. Garden Beach Hotel, on the edge of Turtle Beach, offers responsible night-time expeditions to its guests if turtles are laying.
Moist and muggy, murky and mysterious – an experience of Sinharaja is like nothing else in Sri Lanka. Trekking through the last surviving stretch of virgin rainforest on the island, be ready to pour with sweat as you walk though a bewildering land of exotic colours and wonderful sounds. The forest teems with life whether it be gushing waterfalls, gurgling streams, ants marching, leaves rustling, leeches waiting (you’ve been warned!), crickets creaking or butterflies fluttering.